A play that takes place in 1905 complete with Victorian costumes and a turn-of-the-century parlor set, produced by the B Street Theatre? Just what the heck’s going on here? The theater renowned for its urbane and contemporary plays is actually presenting one of its first-ever period pieces, though in keeping with B Street’s penchant for quirky endeavors, their newest production’s still in the realm of peculiar and definitely out of the mainstream.
The Dazzle is an absorbing look at people who intrigue us when we read about them—hermits secluded in trash-packed houses, bodies found amid canyons of junk. Playwright Richard Greenberg takes that fascination and fashions it into a play that examines two brothers who struggle with their diminishing reality.
Actually, what makes it so fascinating is that the brothers don’t really have one major struggle—it’s more a gradual slide that happens slowly, so slowly that you can see how the two siblings went from society eccentrics to social recluses in their lifetimes. The play’s concept is based on a true account, though the details and the beautifully written script are crafted by Greenberg.
Langley and Homer Collyer were raised in their stately Harlem mansion by society parents in the late 1800s, but were found dead inside the dilapidated and debris-dense mansion years later, secluded inside walls of bundled newspapers and accumulated junk.
The Dazzle takes us on the intriguing journey that Greenberg imagines the siblings took, the one that starts with Homer (T. Ryder Smith) taking to heart his mother’s decree to look after younger brother Lang (Brent Langdon). Lang, the concert pianist whose endearing scatological reasoning and obsessive-compulsive behavior is veering out of control, confounds and confines Homer, who’s own eccentricities begin to unravel.
“My brother makes an epic of a molecule,” says Homer of Lang, who takes an hour to play the minute waltz, and will stare at a vase all day long. “What would he do with the world?” Homer almost finds out when a society woman Millie (Lia Apirle) decides she wants to marry Lang, mostly to shock her upper-crust family.
The strangeness of the play stretches out to the structure as well, one that is rather schizophrenic in itself, traveling from comedy to drama to tragedy, and finally to surrealism. The first half is the most successful, with beautiful lyrical passages and elegant language that’s mesmerizing, and scenes that are all at once painful, poetic and pathetic. Lang’s descriptions of watching men return home from work is as beautiful as watching American Beauty’s swirling paper trash scene.
The second half, while still captivating, slips a bit with the unnecessary return of Millie, whose characterization doesn’t ring as true as the first half. And we’ve lost the strange beauty of madness, while being left with a more cluttered, out-of-focus version. But ultimately what we get is a memorable and haunting play that speaks to the heart, about the heart, and the mysteries of the mind.
B Street Theatre’s ongoing relationship with the Actors Theatre of Louisville pays off here. Artistic and producing directors Timothy and Buck Busfield take yearly jaunts to the Actors Theatre’s Humana Festival of New American Plays looking for innovative material, and this time they’ve not only brought back the play, but also the very talented director William McNulty, as well as exceptional actors Langdon and Smith. Both Langdon and Smith capture the tortured spirits of men possessed by both talent and psychosis and leave an indelible mark on the audience. Apirle is wonderful in the first half, but through no fault of her own, is less effective in the underdeveloped character in the second half.